Striking musicians and the birth of a hit single
In early 1956, television was reshaping the media landscape in the UK. As more and more households bought sets and commercial stations were beginning to be launched, all those who were used to radio’s dominance were starting to realise that the world was changing.
In the (very) early days of television, when it was still seen as an experiment to be seen by very few people, radio paid much better. By the time commercial channels were emerging, though, it was clear that TV was rapidly growing in popularity – and performers began to demand the same pay for appearing on TV as they got for radio.
By late February, the BBC’s orchestras (there were many around the country) were starting to get fed up with poor pay on television and started to take industrial action. While the Goons were obviously a radio outfit, they were not immune to the effects of striking musicians.
The Goons will go ahead with their probe into 'The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal' tomorrow night - without music. The accompanying orchestra did not turn up for yesterday's recording of the programme. Last minute changes were made.
(from the Aberdeen Evening Express, 20 February 1956)
Take It From Here was also affected, according to the same report. It says the show went ahead with piano accompaniment, but listening to it (via RadioEchoes) there is some incidental music, possibly pre-recorded, and Alma Cogan sings a capella, supported by a clapping audience.
All this meant that, at fairly short notice, Spike Milligan had to fill the time normally taken up by Max Geldray’s and Ray Ellington’s musical interludes, as well as compensate for the lack of any incidental music. And so the scene was set for the debut of one of the Goons’ greatest musical moments on 21 February 1956.
‘The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal’ was broadcast that evening at 8:30pm on the Home Service, as per page 10 of the Radio Times. The incidental music was provided by none other than Adolphus Spriggs, an apparent cousin of Jim, voiced by Spike Milligan.
Once we’ve got that straight, it’s over to prime minister Ned Seagoon, who has a diplomatic crisis on his hands. The King of Italy, a pure stereotype voiced by Peter Sellers, threatens war if the British are unable to locate Gina, a female Tuscan salami gifted from Italy as a goodwill present.
John Snagge (recorded): Last night, over a sleepy Houndsditch, a new and secret missile of terrifying potentiality was successfully tested. It is the so-called Hot Dog: a pre-heated salami fitted with a warhead. Seagoon: Yes, dear listeners, and strange to relate, these fiendish weapons were not manufactured, but bred in captivity.
An investigation has revealed the salami has been stolen by two missing diplomats, Burgess and McTeeth. This is a reference to two British men who defected to the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Their story inspired John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to Moscow in 1951 after coded messages were uncovered dating back to 1944.
Inspector McGregor (Sellers, Scottish): Aye, they’ve fooled us all. Under the pretence of going out to buy a copy of Pravda, they took a taxi from Dover to Ostende. That’s what fooled us! We thought they’d take a boat. Seagoon: And then? McGregor: Then they took the road to Berlin. Seagoon: What on earth did they take a road to Berlin for? They’ve got roads there already. Where are they now? McGregor: Nobody knows. The moment they crossed the Polish frontier into Russia and settled in Moscow in a flat on Gorky Street, we lost all trace of them, sir.
There’s then a discussion about male and female salamis, who has access to which, and who is synthesising a new salami to replace whichever one they don’t have. I’m sure it makes sense.
Incidentally, Peter Sellers’ Scottish accent is accompanied by bagpipes in the background, the first time the Goons have tried out what became a running joke. Sellers’ rolling mock-Scottish ‘R’s turn into a car impression and he drives Seagoon off to collect his Union Jack flag from the launderette.
No sooner has he done that then Sellers switches to his musical agent voice, which I believe is based on the influential agents Lew and Leslie Grade, to introduce the great singer: Adolphus Spriggs.
Lew (Sellers): Here, ‘ang on, no, stop the show, stop it, stop, hang on a minute. I got a beautiful boy singer ‘ere. ‘E’s got a song, you never ‘eard nothing like it in all your naturals. It’s a marvellous new wonder song, straight from me own County Down in the old Ireland. Melody, feeling, pathos, Samos, Guernsey, Rockall and Sark. Oh, I’m referring to the old Graham Sark of course. This boy ‘ad ‘is tonsils specially sprayed with Footo, the Wonder Boot Exploder.
As well as the nod to regular Goon stand-in Graham Stark, he goes on to refer to Spriggs as “the North Korean Johnnie Ray”. Ray was a popular American singer in the 1950s, who had eight top 10 hits in his home country and nine in the UK, including number ones with ‘Such A Night’, ‘Just Walkin’ In The Rain’, and ‘Yes Tonight Josephine’.
That aside, this is the moment where Adolphus Spriggs reveals to the world the delights of ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’, which goes down so well he sings it again, this time walking backwards at the same time “at no extra charge”.
The song was performed at the end of the next Goon Show as well, and was released as a single in July 1956, when it spent 10 weeks in the chart and peaked at number 4, according to the Official Charts website. The B-side of the single was ‘Bluebottle Blues’.
According to the record-trading website Discogs, the single also formed the B-side to the release of ‘The Ying Tong Song’ in Ireland, but I haven’t been able to verify this.
Incidentally, the producer of both singles was Marcel Stellman, who died last year aged 96. I wrote about him at the time.
Back to the plot. Greenslade, where were we?
Greenslade: With Italy threatening war, the breeding of ground-to-ground missiles at a standstill, and with Arsenal 3, Tottenham 2, the situation was desperate.
How’s this for spooky: Arsenal won 3-2 at home the very same night this episode was first broadcast, 21 February 1956. It was against Everton, but still. I refuse to acknowledge what the Arsenal v Tottenham scores were that season.
From the zoo, Seagoon hears that the remaining male salami is pining for its mate and is “down to the size of a small frankfurter”. Time for action, and so the strolling prime minister calls in two people to help.
Unfortunately, the duo he leans on is Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty. No sooner has he tasked them with returning the female salami (Gina) then they are rifling through Seagoon’s files in search of top-secret documents.
Grytpype: You Siberian spy, do you know what this paper is? It’s the plans of a female salami! Moriarty: But we don’t need them! Our agents, Burgess and McTeeth, took Gina the female salami with them to Moscow. Grytpype: That’s what the world and Beaverbrook thinks. The truth is quite otherwise. Those fools Burgess and McTeeth got hungry on the way and ate the only female Tuscan salami this side of the spaghetti curtain. Moriarty: Sapristi noodles, then the male salami’s no good! Grytpype: Not at all. You know the fiendish Professor Pavlov has already nearly completed an artificial male salami. With these plans of the female he can breed a million more and bombard Soho with its own deadly kind.
Despite the daft nature of this dialogue, it’s delivered perfectly by Sellers and Milligan in true spy-thriller style. Beaverbrook, incidentally, is likely a reference to newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook who was the owner of the Daily Express before the Second World War.
The second musical interlude, standing in for the Ray Ellington Quartet, is DJ Neddie Seagoon. Harry Secombe was contracted to the Phillips record label at the time and so wasn’t allowed to actually sing. This is why he doesn’t sing on any of the Goons’ musical releases during the 1950s.
Instead, we’re treated to Seagoon’s set of “non-explodable records”.
[FX: Bang] Seagoon: Curse! A dud.
If you listen carefully you’ll hear the naughty reference in the introduction to the first record. It sounds like he’s saying “Rimsky-Korsakov”, the name of a Russian composer, but listen closely and you’ll hear “Ripsi-Corsetsoff”.
Spike has a lot of fun with this segment. As well as sneaking the above past the censors, we get references to Private Wretch of the 4th Mudguards, Jim Davidson’s Saxophone Parlour, and Rowton House Champagne Bar.
Rowton Houses was a chain of hostels for working men set up between 1890 and 1905 as an upgrade on the crappy lodgings available at the time (but not to the extent they had champagne bars), while Jim Davidson was a band leader, and not the alleged comedian of the same name who came along much later.
Seagoon: Finally, Miss Frewina Kellogg would like to hear Sabrina sing. So would I. Goodnight, housewives, and once again, a Merry Christmas!
The whole skit is a take on Housewives’ Choice, a musical request show that was a regular feature on BBC radio from 1947 to 1967, and more than once featured Harry Secombe’s singles, hence John Snagge’s threat to Neddie Seagoon in ‘The Greenslade Story’ that he would “ban your record on Housewives’ Choice”.
Packing up his records Seagoon heads to find the head of MI5 to enquire about Grytpype and Moriarty. This leads him to Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, who are in bed at the top of the Albert Hall, of course.
The lack of musical breaks gives Spike the chance to spin out the Crun-Bannister dialogue for even longer than usual, and it’s a classic of forgetfulness and repetition. It’s hard to work out exactly how or why this is so funny, but it really is.
Seagoon’s attempt to find out anything is futile as Crun can’t hear him. But never fear! Bluebottle is here!
Bluebottle: I bear terrible news, my captain. Them two naughty mens, Mr Thynne and Mr Morinarty, are wicked-type Russian-style spies. They’ve stolen your plans of Mrs Salami and are fleeing the country in a captive balloon.
They give chase and attempt to shoot the balloon down. What do you use when you have no explosive sausages? A boy scout with rockets on his boots, of course.
Seagoon: Fire! [FX: Whoosh of artillery shell. Door opening.] Milligan: Record for you. Seagoon: Quick, put it on. Bluebottle (recorded): You rotten swine you!
The attempt fails, and Grytpype and Moriarty turn the tables by dropping a piano on their pursuers. Crash. Greenslade goes to find the stricken Seagoon.
Seagoon: Have they escaped? Greenslade: No, sir. They were shot by customs for leaving the country without a piano. Seagoon: Good work. Then, there's just one question left. Has my Union Jack come back from the laundrette? Greenslade: Yes. Seagoon: Good. Lay it over me. This floor’s parky [cold]. Greenslade: And so we laid him on a parquet floor. And over him we raised this simple inscription: Sleeping. Call me in time for the next Goon Show.
To close it off, Wallace sings the theme tune himself before reading the credits.
Not for the first time, we’re played out by Peter Sellers serenading the audience with ‘Crest of a Wave’, a song made famous by Ralph Reader’s Gang Shows, which always closed with this number. Sellers was involved with many Gang Shows during his time in the RAF in the Second World War. I believe it is Spike at the piano.
Here’s the song being performed in The Gang Show from 1937. More information can be found on IMDB, which has the film listed under its US title The Gang.
Unsurprisingly, this episode really has to be heard. It’s a brilliant response to a problem that was thrust on the Goons at fairly short notice (striking musicians) and allowed Spike and Larry’s imaginations more room for their flights of fancy. Crun and Bannister’s dialogue is even more drawn out than usual, and all the funnier for it, and everyone – even Wallace Greenslade – gets their turn at singing.
Less than two hours after this episode was broadcast, musicians returned to work after a deal was struck between the Musicians' Union and the BBC. Some even resumed their posts in the middle of broadcasts.
Music came back to the BBC TV service at 10:17 last night, two minutes after the Alma Cogan show had started. The musicians had been called by telephone and rushed back to the studio by taxi. Miss Cogan sang her first song to a piano accompaniment. Then there was a trumpet call, and on to the set walked six musicians wearing overcoats and carrying their instruments.
(from the Belfast News-Letter, 22 February 1956)
As great-aunt Matilda would have said, "Things have reached a pretty pass" when Goon Show announcer Wallace Greenslade - in the absence of any orchestra - had, himself, to sing the show's signing-off tune. It made a good gag; in fact, this week's Goon Show devoted its zaniest moments to making us laugh at this unfortunate dispute. But with its long-term implications for our whole radio entertainment, it was no laughing matter. We can only be glad that both sides have shown some common sense in resolving the dispute at least temporarily.
(from Edinburgh Evening News, 24 February 1956)
For more detailed information about the strike and the release of ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’, have a read of this rather good article from H2G2.
While we’re on the subject of music, I must give massive credit to Sean Gaffney, who on Twitter (as @Toukochan) is also working through his own reviews of the Goon Show, episode by episode – and a lot faster than I am managing! His focus is on the music, identifying all the songs played by Max and Ray while also looking into other references.
His knowledge and research are so good he’s even identified what edits are made in different versions and when different songs were edited in and where from. Follow Sean on Twitter now, I command you.
The Great Tuscan Salami Scandal
Series 6 Episode 23
Broadcast: 21 February 1956
Written by: Spike Milligan
Producer: Pat Dixon
Salami image by Mali Maeder via Pexels.